Imperial College Union responded to the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) this week. The results indicate an improvement on 2015’s results, but issues with supervision and funding continue.
Imperial reported an increase in average scores across all question sectors since the last PRES, with seven of ten sectors being above or equal to the national average. However, some sectors highlighted issues research postgraduates face: supervision, in particular, scored the furthest below the UK average, with 83% of Imperial students satisfied, compared to 86% nationally. The Dyson School of Design Engineering, Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP), and the Imperial College Business School (ICBS) all scored significantly below the Imperial average for supervision, which includes skills and knowledge of supervisors, as well as the amount of contact students have with them.
Imperial College Union identified this as a particular issue, noting: “Many students report that they do not have regular meetings with their supervisor. Furthermore, some supervisors do not respond to emails.” One student Felix spoke to, who is in their final year of a PhD, said: “My supervisor is really bad with feedback, especially before deadlines. I asked him numerous times to look at my early stage assessment report, which was 70 pages long, but I only received his comments a few hours before submission. Colleagues have had similar experiences, which led to sleepless nights and working on the weekend”
A spokesperson from the College told Felix that they have “already taken action to enhance and develop the supervisory experience of research students”, putting in place “improvements to policies” and the opportunity for anonymous feedback.
Completion rates also revealed the issues with funding that affect a significant number of PhD students. While the completion rate at Imperial was above the UK average, there was wide variation, with ICBS having the lowest completion rate, of 71%. A number of students said financial pressures play a large role in completion.
“A lot of PhDs in my department get funding for 3.5 years, but are pressured into continuing experiments for the full four years,” one student told us. “It creates a lot of stress when your supervisor wants you to gather more data at the risk of becoming homeless without extra funding.”
Another student Felix spoke to, who has just finished their PhD, confirmed that financial pressures caused a large psychological burden: “While Imperial is having a push away from three-year funding, funding was still a huge issue for me. When mine ran out, I was unable to pay rent, and experienced ‘hidden homelessness’ while I stayed on friends’ sofas.” The London Assembly Housing Committee recently estimated that 10% of people would experience hidden homelessness in any year, causing a large amount of mental strain. “For about six months,” the student told us, “I didn’t have my own place, and the stress meant I was completely paralysed in terms of working.”
In their response – containing recommendations that they say “if met, will make a meaningful difference to everyone working towards their PhD” – the Union highlighted that “some students are unable to complete their programmes due to financial difficulties”, and said these pressures place “an unnecessary burden on student”, affecting both welfare and work quality. The PRES also revealed departmental variation: the Department of Aeronautical Engineering, for example, scored below the Imperial average on nearly all metrics. The ICBS also fared poorly, with all scores below the Imperial College average; particular issues were opportunities – with only 50% of students feeling they had enough chance to develop – and overall satisfaction, with 2⁄3 of students feeling satisfied with their experience. The CEP was another department that performed poorly, with five of their sector scores being the lowest across all departments. Only 36% of students felt satisfied with the research culture, and half were satisfied with their overall experience, compared with a College average of 81%.
In contrast, a number of departments scored very well, with the Crick Institute, the Departments of Computing and Mechanical Engineering, and the Institute of Clinical Sciences all reporting above average scores across a number of domains.
Imperial scored particularly highly on resource availability, with an 88% satisfaction rate compared to 81% nationally. Students generally felt they were provided with enough to do their research, although the response did identify support for a postgraduate social space. Student opinion of their department’s ‘Responsibilities’, which covers whether they felt their feedback was valued, showed wide variation, with the Union reporting there was “a clear frustration from those who felt that their feedback was not valued”. Scores were particularly low in in the Department of Aeronautical Engineering (66%), and the CEP (62%).
In a statement to Felix, Nick Burstow, Deputy President (Education), said: “The Union has produced its latest Response to the biennial PRES, part of our ongoing commitment to speaking up for our members by influencing College’s decision-making at the highest levels. It was the quickest and earliest PRES Response we’ve ever produced, meaning we have already begun lobbying on behalf of our members to senior Members of College, right from the start of the academic year.”
A spokesperson from the College told Felix: “We are determined to make sure the College is the very best place it can be for our students. We take feedback from students seriously…Departmental action plans in response to the survey, developed in consultation with student reps, will be finalised over the coming weeks.”